Business group opposing public campaign finance, Unshackle Upstate, is a big political spender

The New York anti-tax group Unshackle Upstate has made fighting the public financing of elections a major priority. Late last year the group published an opposition white paper timed to coincide with the release of preliminary findings of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption (which advocated for public campaign financing), and during the Governor’s State of the State address Unshackle Upstate tweeted that public financing was “a non-starter” and “a recipe for more fraud and abuse.”

Unshackle Upstate frames its opposition to public campaign finance in the language of fiscal prudence and concern about corruption; however, the group and its constituents represent a deep-pocketed class of business elites who may see the influence their campaign dollars buy diminish in a public finance system. Since 2008, Unshackle Upstate and the organizations that lead it have spent nearly $2 million on donations and other political expenses.

Is the business group’s opposition to public finance less about fiscal responsibility than it is about maintaining elite hegemony over political spending?

We have written in the past about Unshackle Upstate, outlining its ties to the natural gas industry and business groups pushing to allow fracking in New York State as well as its ties to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Unshackle Upstate was founded by the Rochester Business Alliance (RBA) and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership (BNP), two upstate chambers of commerce and business advocacy groups, to “achieve reforms in Albany that make Upstate New York a stronger place to do business.” Through RBA and BNP’s constituencies, Unshackle Upstate represents some of the most powerful business interests in upstate New York, including banks, energy companies, and real estate developers.

Though Unshackle Upstate warns about the invidious influence that public campaign financing would give to “special interests,” the interests that it represents wield a great deal of political influence under the current regime. We added up the expenditures of three political action committees affiliated with Unshackle Upstate as well as the political contributions of the boards of directors of Unshackle Upstate, RBA, and BNP. Subtracting individual contributions to the PACs to avoid double-counting and subtracting the PACs’ payments back to RBA and BNP, we found that Unshackle Upstate and its two founding groups spent $1,992,785.23 on political campaigns between 2008 and 2013.

Unshackle Upstate Campaign Spending, 2008-2013
Rochester Business Alliance
Contributions from RBA, its board, and its president $1,040,127.25
Expenditures of Committee for a Strong Economy (RBA’s political action committee) $225,216.38
Total $1,265,343.63
Buffalo Niagara Partnership
Contributions from BNP, its board, and its president $367,904.85
Expenditures of Committee for Economic Growth (BNP’s political action committee) $191,701.03
Total $559,605.88
Unshackle Upstate
Contributions from Unshackle Upstate’s “leadership board” (excluding the presidents of RBA & BNP counted above) $6,123.00
Expenditures of UPAC (Unshackle Upstate’s political action committee) $161,712.72
Total $167,835.72
Grand Total $1,992,785.23
Source: New York State Board of Elections (as of January 13, 2014)

The top recipient of Unshackle Upstate’s largess was Governor Cuomo. From 2008 to 2013, he received $161,538.12 in campaign contributions from people affiliated with the group.

Interestingly, Cuomo reaffirmed his support of public campaign financing in his State of the State address last week, the fourth year in a row he has made such a call. However, the fact that the Governor has not yet realized public financing has led some to question his commitment to reforms. Critics point to Cuomo’s last-minute submission of a public financing bill to the state legislature (seven days before the 2013 session ended) and his own massive fundraising efforts (such as last month’s $50,000 per table birthday fundraiser with a performance by Billy Joel) as evidence.

The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, convened by Cuomo in July 2013, said in its report, “Albany’s pay-to-play political culture is greased by a campaign finance system in which large donors set the legislative agenda,” and Unshackle Upstate represents some very large donors indeed.

The group enjoys close ties to the Governor through its representation on the state’s Regional Economic Development Councils, and Cuomo is a great proponent of the tax cuts it seeks. Is Unshackle Upstate’s vocal opposition to public campaign finance (believed by the Moreland Commission to “[free] elected officials from reliance on massive donations from wealthy and powerful interests”) an effort to maintain the outsized influence of the wealthy on state policies?

Correction: This post originally said that the Unshackle Upstate political spending examined occurred over the past five years. We looked at New York State Board of Elections filings from 2008 through 2013, a six year period. The error has been corrected above.